How To Decide What To Tackle When Everything is on Fire

I remember being a young social worker in the early 1990s in NYC. I was up in the Bronx, leaving a meeting with a client, heading downtown for an emergency meeting with another client who was about to be denied housing. My client had been recently released from Rikers Island and had found out that she was HIV-positive two weeks prior. She was in tears as she explained the problem with her landlord who did not want to accept her because she was on Section 8, a housing subsidy.

I knew that my presence would be critical — because having an advocate matters. People with wealth get this, and people without wealth and connections need advocates even more. Advocates show that someone is watching, someone cares. Advocates provide a skill set and authority. So, I was clear on my role and what the benefit I would add to my client in her much-needed quest for housing.

But, while I was waiting on the platform for the downtown 4 train at 174th Street, I looked up to see several police officers on the other platform, heading uptown. I saw the cops line everyone up who was standing on the platform. It was mid-afternoon, and so the platform had mostly adults and older people. I looked incredulously at what was going on because it felt like what I imagined 1939 Germany felt like. And I felt my anger rising because I was not in Germany, 1939, I was in New York City 1993 and seeing people randomly detained by a police force was not acceptable.

Now it is hard for anyone born and raised in the Bronx, whether they are Black, white, Puerto Rican, Bangladeshi, middle-class or poor, to be naive. Of the five boroughs, it is the one that has the expectation of civil liberties most beaten out of the populace. Yet, this felt like a new level of terror. A sweep of everyone who happened to be on the subway platform. The folks on my side of the platform looked at each other, some looking for cops to come on our side, others wondering what was happening and probably all of us hoping for our train to come by really soon.

I felt incredibly torn at that moment. I had provided legal monitoring at enough demonstrations that I knew how to take police badge numbers, write down relevant information on people being detained or arrested, follow-up with precincts, and get the word out to allies to provide visible support. Mind you, this was before smartphones, so I did not have a camera nor a Facebook live that I could stream this on. In fact, this kind of police activity was still not acknowledged outside of the neighborhoods in which it was occurring.

I knew I could be of some assistance and yet, I had another emergency waiting for me downtown. There was no calculation that I could do that would make me feel better. Horrible things were happening. More than I could possibly handle by myself. I made the decision to keep with my appointment and though had a major confrontation with the landlord, was successful in securing housing for my client.

Here is what I learned from that moment that may be helpful to you as you confront what to tackle in a world that is throwing everything at you at once.

  1. There are no absolute right or wrong decisions when you want to help. What is not helpful is procrastinating on making a decision.
  2. Make a choice, then give it your full attention, skills, and passion. Be present in the choices and decisions that you make.
  3. Delegate what you can. We thankfully are connected in ways now that we could not imagine earlier. If you have a clear and specific way to help that you cannot implement, share that with others who may be able to pick up the mantle. Posting “someone should be working on x.” is not helpful. Sharing “I have a connection at a law firm that can take on this case if someone follow-up and I can make a quick introduction,” that is helpful.
  4. Look for connections between the work you are doing and other work that you care about. Most issues are interconnected. Is there some way that what you are doing can benefit someone working on another cause?
  5. Set goals and timelines for the work that you do so that you monitor progress and know when you can move on to other work.
  6. Breathe. And don’t give up.

Find out more about how to use mindfulness practice in social justice advocacy at www.leadershipmattersconsulting.com

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